Husker Hort

A Nebraska View of Horticulture


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Variety, cultivar, hybrid, heirloom… what terms mean

Decisions, decisions. Red or yellow? Determinate or indeterminate tomatoes? Hybrids, varieties, or heirloom plants? The answer you get depends on what you want to do with the plant.

There are many choices when it comes to what you put into your garden. The vegetables you select for the garden are there because you or someone in the family likes them, but they should have specific characteristics that make it valuable to have them there in the first place. You should look beyond the bottom dollar price and make your decisions based upon several characteristics.

Variety, cultivar, hybrid, heirloom… what do all of these terms mean? The terms variety and cultivar are often mistakenly used interchangeably. Variety is a naturally occurring variation of individual plants within a species. The distinguishing characteristics are reproducible in offspring. One common example is the thornless honeylocust, Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermus. It is a naturally occurring thornless honeylocust. Cultivar comes from the term ‘cultivated variety.’ These plants are selected through specific hybridization, plant selection, or mutation, to achieve specific characteristics or traits. An example of a cultivar is Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’ or Husker Red penstemon. ‘Husker Red’ was a particular selection of penstemon that was picked for its red foliage and white blooms. Hybrids are crosses between two species or distinct parent lines and can be developed from a series of crosses between parents. Seeds saved from hybrids usually don’t ‘come true from seed’ meaning seeds saved and planted from hybrids won’t yield the exact same fruit as the year before. One of my favorite tomatoes, ‘Sungold,’ is an example of a hybrid. These plants were specifically bred for their size, color, crack and disease resistance. Lastly there are the heirlooms. These plants are varieties that are the result of natural selection that has been in cultivation for 50 years or more.   Seeds saved from heirloom varieties will ‘come true from seed’ and you will have the same plant as the previous year. One of the more popular heirloom tomatoes is the Brandywine. Often these plants may have the best flavor, but they often lack the disease resistance that the hybrids offer.

Why do hybrids often cost more than varieties? The major reason for the price difference between hybrids and standard varieties all comes down to time. The higher price is related to the amount of time that it takes to produce new hybrids. The carefully selected parent plants must be cross-pollinated by hand to produce offspring with the desirable characteristics. Then the seeds from those crosses have to be grown out and the plants have to then be evaluated to ensure that the resulting plants have the right combination of characteristics. The breeder then has to produce enough seeds to sell to meet the demand. Open-pollinated varieties are planted in a field and then Mother Nature does the work moving the pollen around. The fruits are then harvested and the seeds are collected.

Your expectations of the plants can help you decide which type of plant to select. Gardeners who want to harvest seeds from this years’ garden to plant next year, might want to stick with open pollinated varieties or heirlooms. Hybrids offer improved disease resistance and are more adapted to environmental stresses. If you buy fresh seed every year and you want the most productive, least problem prone garden, hybrids are probably the way to go.

With a little background information, hopefully your decisions just got a little easier.

For more information contact Elizabeth Killinger at elizabeth.killinger@unl.edu, 308-385-5088308-385-5088, on Facebook, Twitter, her blog at https://huskerhort.wordpress.com/, or visit the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension website: hall.unl.edu.

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Raskly Rabbits and Lil’ Stinkers

This year’s temperatures so far have been a rollercoaster.  In a matter of a week we went from higher than average temperatures to subzero temperatures.  That type of temperature fluctuation is not only hard on us; it is also hard on our landscapes.  Take advantage of the warm weather while its here and be on the lookout for a few potential problems in the landscape.  Remember that gardeners aren’t the only ones that are ready for spring.

While the snow was on the ground, pesky critters were at work.  Rabbits have been hard at work munching on your landscape plants during the winter.  Rabbits will feed on pencil sized branches and will leave a clean 45 degree angle cut.  They can also strip the bark from around the base of trees and shrubs as high as 3 feet tall.  Cottontails may be cute, but if there is heavy enough feeding, they can cause some serious damage.  Fencing the plants that are the most commonly munched by rabbits will keep them from becoming lunch.  Be sure to bury the fence at least 1 foot in the ground and have it stand at least 2 feet tall.

Voles are a little harder to spot in the winter.  Voles are small creatures that look like a short-tailed mouse.  They make runways between the turf and the snow cover that are about 1-2 inches wide.  Once the snow is melted it looks like a tiny maze of runways zigzagging between plant material.  In the areas of the runways, the turf will be nipped off close to the crown of the plant.  Normally, the turf will repair itself in the spring and the damage isn’t permanent.  If the feeding is excessive, the turf can be over seeded in those areas.  Voles can also eat away at the green inner bark of trees and shrubs just like rabbits.  If the feeding damage is great enough, it can kill young trees and shrubs.  If severe damage is noticed, allow the wound to remain open to the elements and breathe.  Avoid covering the damaged areas with tree wraps or wound dressings and paints.  Voles also steal bulbs from the ground and eat them.  If your prized tulip doesn’t come up this spring, blame the voles.

What’s black with white stripes and is a stinker?  You guessed it, the skunk.  The well-known smell is enough to warn any passerby of its presence.  Skunks are active from dusk until dawn and feed on a wide range of insects.  Skunks can cause damage to turf while digging for their next meal.  Since they don’t feed on landscape plants, why do you need to know about skunks now?  We are in the prime mating season of the skunk.  Males will travel up to 5 miles in search of females, many times over our lovely highways.  Females will have a litter of 4-6 pups which are with mom until the fall.

Some critters have been busy this winter munching and snacking.  Check your landscape plants to see if there is any damage left behind from these critters and try to steer clear of our little smelly friends, the mating season will soon be over.

For more information contact Elizabeth Killinger at elizabeth.killinger@unl.edu, 308-385-5088308-385-5088, on Facebook, Twitter, her blog at https://huskerhort.wordpress.com/, or visit the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension website: hall.unl.edu.


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Live Christmas Trees are for the Birds

bluesprucecjlgLive Christmas trees add an unmistakable ambiance to the holidays.  Now that the holidays are over, the time has come to let your tree perform a different task.  Get good use out of your live Christmas tree for a while longer.  Feeding birds has become a very popular pastime that can be done year round.  There are three things to remember for bird feeding success: location, providing the correct feed and feeder for the bird you want to attract, and maintaining a constant availability.

There are a few steps you should take with your Christmas tree before you stick it outdoors for the birds.  Remove all decorations, lights, and try to remove as much of the tinsel, if not all, if possible.  The best location for the tree once outdoors is on the south or east side of the house.  This will provide shelter from the harsh north and west winter winds.  Be sure the tree is secure in its new location by setting the stump in the ground or bucket of damp sand and by attaching the top with twine to nearby buildings or trees.

Christmas trees can create a wonderful backyard habitat.  The tree can provide shelter for the birds by protecting them from the wind and predators.  It can also act as a feed station. For a fun winter project, make your own bird feeders.  Popcorn, cranberry, and raisin strings are not only festive, but they also help to feed the birds.  Popcorn will attract cardinals and finches, while cranberries and raisins attract cedar waxwings and any overwintering robins.  Apples, oranges, leftover bread, and pine cones covered with peanut butter and rolled in birdseed also make great feeders.

The saying that works with real estate also works for bird feeders– location, location, location.  Most birds prefer to feed when they are protected from the strong winds and where they can have areas with protective cover and perching sites.  Trees and shrubs nearby offer excellent perching sites while evergreens provide great cover for birds to hide.

The types of feeders and the feed you offer will determine the types of birds that you will have visiting.  Birds tend to be pretty picky with the type of feed and feeder that they prefer.  Goldfinches are easy to attract if you use niger thistle seed in a clear tube-type feeder.  Woodpeckers and nuthatches are fond of suet.  Suet is a combination of animal fat, seeds, and other ingredients that attracts insect eating birds.  It offers a quick source of energy for birds.  Suet feeders are usually a plastic-coated wire cage.  There are a wide variety of feeder types available at most home and garden centers or you can make your own.  Pick a feeder that you enjoy looking at, is easy to fill, fits the type of bird you want to attract, and fits within your price range.

In winter birds rely on you and what you have to offer.  Once you decide to start feeding the birds, it should be done consistently.  Feeding the birds in the winter makes them reliant on you for part of their diet.  Forgetting to feed the birds during a severe cold period or storm could mean that they could starve to death before they find another food source.

When your live Christmas tree has fed all the neighborhood birds be sure to take it to your local recycling areas where it can be made into habitat or useful mulch.  Grand Island had three locations; ACE Hardware at the west end of the parking lot, the north side Skagway south parking lot, and the Conestoga Mall just north of Red Lobster.  Trees can be dropped off at these locations until January 5th and will be chipped into mulch.

Upcoming Programs:

Nebraska Extension Master Gardener Program- Two training sessions will be held at the UNL Extension in Hall County meeting rooms in Grand Island NE.  Session 1: Tuesday evenings, February 11 through March 25, 6:00 to 9:00 PM.  Session 2: March 17, 19, 21, 24, 26, and 28 from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Please contact Elizabeth Killinger, 308-385-5088, with any questions about the program.  Registrations are due prior to January 7 with the session you are interested in attending.  More information, updated schedules, and an application can be found at http://hall.unl.edu

For more information contact Elizabeth Killinger at elizabeth.killinger@unl.edu, 308-385-5088, on Facebook, Twitter, her blog at https://huskerhort.wordpress.com/, or visit the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension website: hall.unl.edu.

 


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Preparing Turf for Winter

Fall is good for more than just raking leaves and cooler nights.  Fall is actually one of the better times of the year to improve your turf.  Take advantage of these cooler temperatures and prepare your lawn for the coming spring.

The last fertilizer application of the year is often referred to as winterizer fertilizer.  This fertilizer application is more than just a tongue twister, it is important to prepare cool season turfgrasses for the following year.  Winterizer fertilizers are normally applied at the time of the last mowing, which is usually late October to early November.  The lawn isn’t growing ‘up’ at this time of the year, which will relocate the fertilizer to other parts of the plants, mainly the root system.  The remainder of the fertilizer will be stored in the crown and rhizomes of the turf and will be utilized next spring.

The type of nitrogen and make-up of the fertilizer can make a difference.  When you look at the fertilizer bag, there will be three numbers present.  These numbers indicate the ratio of the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the bag.  Nitrogen, the first number, is usually the nutrient that is most needed especially in the winter.  Ideally you would like to have at least half of the product to be a slow release nitrogen source, like sulfur coated urea.  Nitrogen should be applied at a rate of 1 to 1.5 pounds per 1,000 square feet.  The ratios on the bag should be similar to a 1-0-1 or 1-0-5.5, or some examples of typical numbers for winterizer fertilizers could be 21-0-20 or 19-2-13.  These ratios will provide close to an equal amount of potassium, the third number, along with the nitrogen.  Studies have shown that potassium aids the turf in tolerating stress.

Before you apply the fertilizer; can you see your turfgrass in lawn?  Heavy layers of leaves can do a few things to your lawn.  If they are thick enough, leaves can smother the lawn and also create conditions that can be favorable to snow mold.  Raking or mowing the leaves on a regular basis can help to prevent this heavy layer of leaves from forming and matting down on the turf before winter.  If the leaves aren’t utilized in the compost pile or worked into the garden soil, they can simply be mowed over.  Using the mulching blade on the lawn mower will chop up the leaves into smaller pieces that are able to filter down between the grass blades.  This helps keep you from having to haul the leaves away and it also helps to add organic matter back into the soil.  By removing or mulching the leaves on the lawn, you can ensure that your high quality winterizer fertilizer will be able to filter down to the soil where it can be used by the turfgrass, rather than sitting up on top of the leaf litter.

Good news. There is still time to control pesky perennial weeds.  The ideal season to control perennial weeds like ground ivy, also known as Creeping Charlie, was between September 15th and the first frost, but there is still time.  Research out of Purdue shows that herbicides that contain triclopyr, like Turflon, were effective on ground ivy and retained their effectiveness when applied later in the season regardless of the first frost.  The study showed that broadleaf applications should be effective when made into the first week or two of November, but control might be not be seen until spring.

With a little time and effort now, your lawn can still look green and lush next spring and hopefully with a few less weeds too.

For more information contact Elizabeth Killinger at elizabeth.killinger@unl.edu, 308-385-5088, on Facebook, Twitter, her blog at https://huskerhort.wordpress.com/, or visit the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension website: hall.unl.edu.


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Preparing Gardens for Fall

Don't forget about the pumpkins. Photo courtesy of Lancaster County Extension

Don’t forget about the pumpkins. Photo courtesy of Lancaster County Extension

The presence of frost usually means that your vegetable garden is either limping toward the finish line or has completed production for the year.  Fall is the perfect time to clean up the vegetable garden and its tools to prepare them for next year.

There are a few more tasks to complete before you put your gardening tools away for the winter.  Before you perform the actual clean-up of the garden, make notes about the year. Record the garden layout, cultivars that worked (or didn’t), and pests or diseases you encountered this past year.  This will help you next spring when it is time to plan the garden and help you to remember what vegetables were in which location for your crop rotation schedule.  The goal is to have a 3 year crop rotation plan.  This is where vegetables from the same plant family are rotated around different locations within the garden.  The objective is to avoid placing those plant families in one particular location for 3 years.

The actual clean-up of the garden is the next step.  Elimination of garden debris, like dead plant material, fruit ‘mummies,’ weeds, and rotting vegetables, can help to reduce disease, weed, and insect problems next year.  Remove and discard disease or insect infested plant material, but do not compost.  Compost piles do not reach high enough temperatures to kill all pathogens, like fungal spores and bacteria.  Discarding or burning the infected plant material will remove the pathogens that could potentially infect next years’ crops.  Removal of weeds with mature seed heads will not only improve the appearance of the garden, but also help remove the seed source for potential weeds in next years’ garden.

Adding organic matter can help improve soil composition.  Incorporating residues from healthy plants can act as a great source of organic matter, which can improve the texture of the soil.  These healthy plants can either be turned or tilled into the soil or tossed into the compost pile.  Organic mulches that were used in the garden, like straw, grass clippings, or even newspaper, can also be tilled into the soil.  Tree leaves are another great source for organic matter for the garden.  Leaves that are picked up with the lawn mower will break down faster once they are worked into the soil because they are chopped into smaller pieces.

Cages and trellises also need some clean up in the fall.  Support structures, like tomato cages or trellises, should be pulled out of the ground, cleaned up, and placed in storage for winter.  If you have had disease issues in the past, like blight in tomatoes, now is also an excellent time to disinfect the cages or trellises to keep them from infecting new plants next year.  A 10% bleach solution, alcohol wipes, rubbing alcohol, or even ready-to-use bleach wipes can be used to disinfect the cages prior to winter storage.

Speaking about putting your garden tools away for winter…it’s time for some end-of-the-year tool maintenance.  Digging tools, like shovels, hoes, pitchforks, and garden rakes, should have excess soil removed from them.  Any rust that is present can be removed using a wire brush and a little bit of elbow grease or an electric drill with a wire brush or sanding attachment. After rust is removed, renew or sharpen the edges and points with a mill file or grinding wheel.  For winter storage, apply a light coating of oil.  Tools can even be stored in a 5 gallon bucket filled with sand and oil.  Inspect the handles of your tools at the end of the season for cracks or splinters.  Replace the handles if necessary.  If the wooden handles are in good condition, they can be sanded and oiled at least once a year.  Use a fine grade sand paper to smooth the surface.  Remove any dust and rub linseed oil into the handle and allow it to soak in.  Keep applying until the oil doesn’t absorb any more.  Wait a half hour, and dry off any oil remaining on the surface.

For more information contact Elizabeth Killinger at elizabeth.killinger@unl.edu, 308-385-5088, on Facebook, Twitter, her blog at https://huskerhort.wordpress.com/, or visit the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension website: hall.unl.edu.

 


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Celebrate ReTree Nebraska Week

Photo of Youth Planting a Tree in Lincoln, NE. (courtesy ReTree NE)

Photo of Youth Planting a Tree in Lincoln, NE. (courtesy ReTree NE)

Every good Nebraskan knows we are the home of Arbor Day.  Did you know we also have another opportunity to celebrate trees?  ReTree Nebraska week is dedicated to trees.  Find out why we should re-tree Nebraska and how you can take part in this week long celebration from September 22nd – 28th.

ReTree Nebraska is a cooperative initiative of the Nebraska Forest Service, Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, University of Nebraska Rural Initiative, University of Nebraska–Lincoln Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, and Nebraska Community Forestry Council.  It is a 10-year cooperative initiative which will raise public awareness of the value of trees, reverse the decline of Nebraska’s community tree resources, and improve the diversity and sustainability of trees in communities across the state that will last for generations to come.

Severe weather, drought, poor planting practices or species selection, insects, disease and an aging tree population all have contributed to the decline in the number of community trees across the state. Planting new trees is an essential part of maintaining Nebraska’s community forest, and fall planting offers important benefits.

Just because we are a ‘Prairie State’ doesn’t mean that we don’t have or need trees.  Across Nebraska, there are about 470,000 acres of community forests. These trees were planted by previous generations who understood the long-term benefits they would provide, such as cleaner air, healthier soil and wildlife habitats. Planting a tree provides much-needed shade during hot Nebraska summers, which helps reduce energy costs for homeowners, schools and businesses.  Every dollar invested in the community forest returns an average of $2.70 in net annual benefits. Nearly $9.7 billion in environmental, social and economic benefits are provided by 13.3 million trees in Nebraska communities, but that’s half the number of trees that were present 30 years ago.

Fall is an optimal time for tree planting.  “Fall is a great time to plant trees in Nebraska because there are fewer demands on the roots, allowing trees to establish their root systems and get a jump start on spring growth,” according to Jessica Kelling, ReTree Nebraska coordinator.

When selecting a tree species, Kelling recommends considering a couple of key factors. Plant a different species than what is already growing in adjacent areas. “Enjoy the two weeks of fall color your neighbor’s red maple provides, but select a tree for your yard that provides some variety in leaf texture, form and fall color to create a diverse landscape year round.”  Kelling also urges homeowners to take a tree’s mature height and width into consideration when selecting a species for planting. “Go to the planting site and look up, down and around for conflicts with buildings, utility lines and even other trees.”

If you are looking for a good tree to plant this ReTree Week, ReTree Nebraska has “Thirteen for 2013,” a list of underutilized tree species.  The trees are broken down by size and type and include:

Evergreen- Concolor fir—Abies concolor, Black Hills spruce– Picea glauca var densata,

Small to Medium Deciduous Trees- Shantung maple—Acer truncatum, Miyabe maple—Acer miyabei,  Gamble Oak- Quercus gambelii, Japanese or Pekin Tree lilac-Syringa reticulate (‘Ivory Silk’) or Syringa reticulate ssp. pekinensis (Copper Curls®)

Large Deciduous Trees- Kentucky coffeetree—Gymnocladus dioicus, Northern catalpa—Catalpa speciosa, Baldcypress—Taxodium distichum, Bur oak—Quercus macrocarpa, Chinkapin oak—Quercus muehlenbergii, English Oak—Quercus robur, Elm hybrids—Ulmus x (‘Accolade’, ‘Cathedral’, ‘Frontier’, ‘New Horizon’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Triumph’, ‘Vanguard’), Black or Bigtooth Maple- Acer nigrum or Acer grandidentatum

We can work together to celebrate this week as well as support a grassroots, or rather tree roots, Nebraska initiative. To learn more about ReTree Nebraska, report a tree planting, or find out more about tree selection, planting and care, visit www.retreenebraska.unl.edu or email retreenebraska@unl.edu.

For more information contact Elizabeth Killinger at elizabeth.killinger@unl.edu, 308-385-5088, on Facebook, Twitter, her blog at https://huskerhort.wordpress.com/, or visit the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension website: hall.unl.edu.


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Black Gold… aka Compost

Turning Compost.  Photo from byf.unl.edu

Turning Compost. Photo from byf.unl.edu

Fall will be here before we know it.  Many things change as we get closer to autumn.  The leaves begin to change, the gardens are finishing production, the landscape is getting ready to be put to bed for the season, and the compost pile continues to grow.  Compost pile?

Compost is created from the leftovers in your landscape.  Leaves, small twigs, and grass clippings can all be gathered together in the fall and turned into a high quality material than can be used in several different ways.

Composting garden waste not only helps the environment, but also your wallet.  Composting garden waste and leaves allows nature to do the hard work in a simple, inexpensive way, and keeps you from hauling away the materials to the landfill.  A well-made compost heap creates an environment where decay causing bacteria live and reproduce to convert manure, leaves, and grass into dark, rich humus.  During the composting process, the carbon in the plant material is broken down, which produces heat.  Temperatures in a pile can reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit.  If properly maintained, the high temperatures can kill weed seeds and other undesirables found within the pile without much smell.

There are rules for the materials that go into a compost pile.  Leaves, grass clippings, straw and non-woody plant material are all great additions to the pile.  Branches, logs, and twigs that are larger than ¼” can be included, but the must be shredded or cut into smaller pieces first to help in the decomposition process.  Kitchen waste like vegetable scrapes, coffee grounds, and eggshells are other ingredients that can be included in the compost pile.  Materials like pet feces, meat, bones, grease, whole eggs, and dairy products are some items that should be kept out of the pile.  These materials can cause a health threat or attract unwanted visiting wildlife.

To have a properly working compost pile, it needs to be the right size.  The pile should be large enough to hold heat, but yet small enough to allow good air circulation to its center.  Generally a compost pile should be at least 3’ tall, 3’wide, and 3’long in order to hold enough heat.  The height and width should be no more than 5’ to allow air to circulate to the center of the pile.

Layering is a key component in building a compost pile. Before building, put base layer of 4-6” of chopped brush or other course material over the soil in the area you be placing the pile.  This will help with the air circulation under the pile.  On top of that, put a 3-4” layer of low carbon organic matter, green material like grass clippings.  Follow that with at 4-6” layer of a high carbon organic matter, brown material like leaves or garden waste.  Both layers should be damp to the touch, so add water accordingly.  The material should be damp enough that a drop or tow of liquid is released from a handful when squeezed.  Finish with a 1” layer of garden soil or finished compost.  This will introduce the microorganisms that are needed to break down the organic matter.  Before adding more material to the pile, mix all but the base layer together.  This will help even the decomposing within the pile.  Keep repeating the layering process until you create the desired size of the compost pile.

Compost piles can have as little or as much maintenance as you want to put into it.  The lowest maintenance is a ‘passive pile,’ or a pile that is just left alone.  Actively turned piles will keep the conditions right for a quicker breakdown of plant debris.  With active piles, the compost is turned about once a week using a pitchfork, mixing the new debris with the old.  Piles that are excessively turned will not keep consistent temperatures and the compost will take longer to develop.  Also maintain the proper moisture level of about 50%, 1-2 drops squeezed out of the matter.

‘Black Gold’ or finished compost has many uses.  It is dark brown, crumbly, and earth smelling.  There still may be some small pieces of leaves or other ingredients that may be visible.  The possibilities are endless to what you can do with compost.  It can be used to amend soils, as a component in soil mixtures for container, as a topdress fertilizer for the garden, mulch, or even for a compost ‘tea’.

There are just as many techniques for making compost as there are uses for it.  The key is finding the right way that works for you.

For more information contact Elizabeth Killinger at elizabeth.killinger@unl.edu, 308-385-5088, on Facebook, Twitter, her blog at https://huskerhort.wordpress.com/, or visit the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension website: hall.unl.edu.